Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ascension, nostalgia, illusion and transcendence: Eclipse offers a pair of remarkable films from the forgotten Soviet era master Larisa Shepitko

Larisa Shepitko was born in 1939 in the Ukrainian city of Artemovsk. She attended the Moscow Film School and studied under the great Alexandr Dovzhenko, director of Arsenal (1928) and Earth (30), but being an all-too-apt pupil, and part of what would prove an iconoclastic generation of Soviet filmmakers, she would not uphold or even reconfigure the traditions of her mentor so much as follow his example as an innovator and exacting aesthete, developing an utterly distinctive voice, one that would seek poetic methods of externalizing internal, individual transformations rather than, in accordance with official Soviet ideology, speak for the glory of a people.

Wings (66), one of two films in Eclipse’s new no-frills Shepitko box, begins with an image of pedestrians moving in several directions on a village street. This image of public life, at first inexplicably strange, seemingly slightly distorted, somehow alienating, is revealed as something literally separate from the quiet, tidy world we’re entering when a figure suddenly enters the frame and moves toward us, the camera tracking backwards to show that the crowds are on the opposite side of a window from him. The figure is a bespectacled, anonymous tailor, unimportant to the rest of our story, but his duty in this first scene in emblematic: he’s measuring Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova) for her power suit.

A decorated World War II fighter pilot, Nadezhda is being costumed for her new role as director of a provincial trade school, her severe new threads rendering her androgynous and angular. The job is intended as a reward for her heroism yet it quickly finds her uncomfortably trying to fit into the role of an authority figure over a generation for whom her past means little. The sense of falseness associated with her position is echoed throughout Wings with several theatrical or illusory scenes in which key elements disconnect: a soundless speech on a TV; firemen apparently running toward but in fact only running through a drill; two middle-aged women in an empty café reminiscing for their lost youth over beer and plates of meat, who begin to sing and waltz together, until it is revealed that a crowd of men with arched brows are observing from just outside the café windows, and the women embarrassedly separate and smooth out their clothing. So much of this place Nadezhda inhabits seems to exist as simulation.

Nadezhda will frequently be seen attempting, with barely contained desperation, to strike a tone of merriment amongst her colleagues, family and townsfolk, but one of the only scenes in which she seems to truly feel herself is one where she’s essentially alone. She stands in the street as it begins to rain and the other villagers all run for shelter. She gazes toward the newly vacant horizon and her point-of-view seems to lift off, taking her into the dampened sky and into an episode of helpless nostalgia for the days when she flew fighter planes and was so in love with a fellow pilot whose death she witnessed from her own cockpit. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking scene, emotionally matched only by the film’s finale, where an act of panicked escape becomes something transcendent.

These themes of transcendence and flight are inherit in the very title of the other film in Eclipse’s Shepitko box, The Ascent (76), set in 1942 Belarus, where starved and weary Soviet partisans are on the run from Nazi invaders, in a landscape so seized by winter that only the barren, inky, crooked foliage breaks up the grey-whiteness that’s seemingly melded earth and sky. The film follows two of the partisans eventually captured by the Nazis, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), sent out to forage for food. Sotnikov, who already seems the physically weaker of the pair, is badly injured, yet as their plight worsens and they, along with three other locals, are set to be executed, Sotnikov unearths some immense inner resolve, devises a plan to become a sort of martyr, and little by little seems to glow, becoming increasingly beatific as he nears his own death.

The Ascent is a very grim film that does not flatter human nature, but it is inspiring in its lyricism, strange development of tension and paradoxical equation of escape with surrender. Music is seldom used, but when it is it makes for eloquent, nearly dream-like passages. The almost hallucinatory, not to mention Christian mystical tone that envelops the story as Sotnikov’s face takes on a more iconic light in Shepitko's consistently remarkably close-ups, aligns it to the contemporary work of Tarkovsky, films like Andrei Rublev (69) and Solaris (72), as does the use of Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsyn, appearing here in the very enigmatic role of a Russian interrogator working for the Nazis.

Shepitko would doubtlessly have gone on to further establish herself as among the greatest filmmakers of the late Soviet era and beyond, but sadly, The Ascent would be her last film. She was killed in 1979 along with four of her collaborators while scouting locations for her next project Farewell to Matyora. The film was later completed by Elem Klimov, her husband, the director of another masterful war film, Come and See (85).

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